Christchurch at last and after ten hours in the air the relief of being able to get out and walk, to stretch his legs and feel the crisp night air on his face, was enormous. He stood there for a while, taking deep breaths and rousing himself from the dull stupor of hours in an airliner, even a top of the line SHADO SST, with its dry re-cycled air and the constant thrum of engines. It was nearly three in the morning and the quartermasters of the SHADO supply section were quietly furious at being called out at this early hour, making their displeasure known. Their subtle discourtesy and silent treatment did not go unnoticed and he took his time, determined to linger over the process while his own annoyance increased with each trivial insolence.
He sat there, insisting on testing goggles, boots, even skis; trying different parkas and rucksacks, pondering the merits of fleece boot liners and thermal inner gloves as opposed to silk or lambswool. A petty thing to do but it gave him some satisfaction after his long and solitary journey, and after all, the US Galaxy to McMurdo was not due to leave for another four hours. On reflection, the team had a cushy number here, an easy nine to five job with few late night calls. He would put them through a Level Five inspection before Christmas; see if they were pulling their weight or not, after all there were enough older members of SHADO who deserved a settled life without the stress of twenty-four hour duties. The Mobile Team leader injured last year for example. William Casson. A decent man who deserved better. The loss of his leg was a huge blow to his family and team but at least he was alive and Straker had been searching for a suitable post for Casson for some time – the man was too loyal to cast aside and SHADO owed him a great deal. It would mean re-locating the former team leader here, but it was a good place, Christchurch.
Straker picked up a pair of boots, the ones he had tried on first of all before declaring they were not quite comfortable enough. ‘These will be fine. Have everything ready for me at the airport in an hour.’ And he walked out, unzipping the white parka he had selected as he set off back to the airport. The weather was really too warm for wearing such a coat but it was easier than carrying it. The cold weather clothes would be waiting for him to change into, together with the other equipment he requested. Sensible rules really, having to wear the full E C Weather outfit on the flight, but it would be hot and noisy. He looked at his watch; five am., plenty of time to get back to the airport. He sighed; another five hours of travel stil to come and he stepped up his pace, eager to get at least some proper exercise before yet another long haul flight, stuck in the cargo bay of a military transport.
The glowing double arch of the familiar logo drew him like a magnet and he found himself scrabbling through the various pockets of the parka, until he pulled out his wallet with a feeling of relief. The restaurant was closed but the drive-thu was open, though without any customers, and he walked down the lane to lean on the counter and plead with the bored and slightly amused young man sitting inside. A large coffee and double sausage and egg muffin. He sat outside on the wall of the raised flower bed with its winter foliage plants under the sign, watching a few cars drive past and eating an early breakfast, his first real meal since leaving England. He put the last piece of sausage in his mouth, crumpled the packaging up and checked his watch; two miles or so back to the Centre. Plenty of time and, brushing the last crumbs from his coat, he set off.
Freeman sat on the ground and waited to be sighted; an easy task, the distress beacon was equipped with smoke flares and his parachute was brilliant orange. It stood out on the white landscape like a huge flame, even though it was close to three in the morning according to his watch. Still daylight, though; the sun above the horizon and casting a light glow over the snow covered land. Various pieces of the Twin Otter plane were scattered over several miles and already he could hear the first of the search aircraft approaching. A stupid thing to do. Straker would be livid. He pulled of his gloves, inspecting each hand to check for injuries. The minor electric shock he suffered when the power systems shorted out, had been painful, but there seemed to be no visible damage, not even any residual stiffness. A good thing, otherwise he would be confined to the base for a week or more, and he needed to get out on this mission. The worse thing though, the really depressing aspect of the whole sorry business, was that he hadn’t managed to get a single aerial photo of the crash zone. The brief weather window had seemed such a perfect opportunity to get out there and see what was going on. A decent shot might even have made Straker shrug off the expense of replacing the aircraft, unlikely though that was, but he had come back empty handed. Nothing. Apart from a bill for ten million dollars.
He would wait until the mission was over before informing Ed, it would only be an unnecessary distraction and Straker had enough on his mind without worrying about this.
The first aircraft circled overhead and he stood up, waving both arms to show them he was unhurt. It was freezing out here and he wondered where Straker was, hoping his friend had the sense to take it easy in Christchurch. There was no point in wasting energy; Straker worked hard enough as it was and this could turn out a relatively easy mission: a downed UFO, a couple of bodies, and with any luck, some alien technology they could take back to the research section in HQ. Alec knew just how desperate Straker was to get his hands on one decent-sized piece of an alien craft.
It was just a case of waiting for the aerocopter to arrive now.
The passenger seats on the plane ran along both sides of the cargo hold in two long rows facing the centre. Straker moved down the narrow aisle, finding a spare seat and fastening the straps. At least there was room to stretch out his legs although the seat was fixed. He was tired and his initial spurt of energy had long since worn off, leaving him jaded and aching with fatigue. A group of scientists followed him, chatting in somewhat incomprehensible language about nematode distribution in penguins and iridium dispersal in core samples, casting curious glances at his non-regulation white clothing. He was tempted to move, but the space was filling up and there was no chance. It would be close to midday when he arrived at McMurdo, and he knew Alec would have arranged a flight for the afternoon, even if it meant pulling rank.
The flight seemed endless, turbulence making it impossible to sleep or even read and after four hours he was sweaty and clammy, pulling the thick material away from his neck to get some small amount of fresh air against his skin. It felt as if he was suffocating. There was nothing for it but to sit there, head back and hands resting limply on his knees.
The jolting increased and he could hear someone vomiting. It set the others off and he swallowed his own nausea, desperate not to have to use the paper bag provided. He had never been sick, not even space sickness. Never. He wiped the back of his mouth with one gloved hand, took a sip of water, and focussed his vision on the ceiling. And then the plane banked and he sensed the engines powering down; close to landing. He gave a sigh and concentrated the things around him, from long years of experience the best way to bring his body back under his control: the air heavy with the sour smell of vomit and sweat, his own included, the loud throbbing of the engines, the seat shaking beneath him, the tilting of the aircraft as it approached the landing strip. He held his breath, fingers gripping tight as the landing gear engaged and the plane flattened out to land with little more than a slight bounce on the ice and then a judder. A long exhalation from someone nearby, a sense of relief filling the bay. Only one more flight today. He straightened his legs, fingers pushing deep inside to loosen the knotted muscles, desperate for a shower and a change of clothes, a decent cup of coffee, some fresh air and, more than anything, a familiar and welcoming face.
He let the scientists disembark first, enjoying the peace and silence before picking up his single and somewhat cumbersome bag and clambering out into sunshine, blinking in the brilliant light sparkling from snow and ice and whiteness. He paused in the doorway, pulling his goggles down to cut the glare, boarded the waiting bus for the trip to the Station and dumped his bag in the reception area while he went to phone Alec.
‘I’ve got you on a flight leaving at four. You should get here by nine. Weather report has visibility good, wind speed low, no precipitation. We’re setting of at five in the morning, so I’ll be asleep when you arrive.’ Freeman glanced over at Morton and winced. ‘Get some rest, Ed. You sound tired. Have a good flight.’ He closed the connection putting the phone down with a shake of his head.
‘Straker?’ Morton folded the map he had been examining and tucked it down one side of the topbox on the sledge. ‘Hope he’s ready for this. Personally I’d stay right here where it’s warm. Safer as well.’
‘Want to drop out? We can manage without you.’
Morton laughed. ‘Without me? No way. I’m actually looking forward to this. Something to tell the grandkids. How I was there when the boss and Alec Freeman fought it out on the ice. My money’s on you by the way. He’s a desk jockey now. Soft. Easy meat for someone like you.’
‘Pfff. You don’t have grandkids. Not even married. And what sensible girl would have you anyway?’
‘Let me see…..there’s been ……. Ayshea, Gay, Joanne, Joan……’ Morton was counting on his fingers when Freeman tossed one of his mukluks across the room, hitting the younger man on the shoulder. ‘Oy. Straker won’t be like that you know. Senior members of staff are expected to set an example.’ He went back to counting. ‘Virginia, Georgina, …..’ but Freeman had grabbed his boot and gone, the sound of laughter echoing in the corridor.
Another military plane, slow, unwieldy, loud. And even more uncomfortable. The cargo hold was crammed to its limits with crates of supplies: food and fresh vegetables, replacement parts, mail and newspapers. And a single passenger. He edged his way down the narrow aisle between crates and the long row of seats running lengthways down one side, not sure where to sit at first, at the front near to the cockpit, or at the back near to the exit. It seemed silly to sit in the middle and he vacillated for a few moments, standing there, unsure. In the end he simply tossed his bag on the nearest seat and sat beside it, his back to the tiny windows. There was nothing to look at, apart from wooden boxes and pallets, and nothing to do and in a way he missed the ridiculously abstruse chatter of the scientists, though not the sounds of travel sickness.
He got out his notepad and opened it, relishing the chance to catch up on SHADO news while he was alone. All was well in Headquarters, the stations quiet and nothing to report and in the end, out of sheer boredom, he stretched out across the empty seats and dozed. The sound of the co-pilot coming aft to use the head woke him and he pushed himself upright, rubbing his face and uncomfortably aware of the rasp of bristles.
‘Another hour. You look as if you’ve been travelling a while.’ The co-pilot stopped on his way back, handing over a polystyrene mug of coffee. ‘Special trip? Don’t usually get many passengers this early in the season.’
The coffee was scalding hot. Black and bitter and strong, but he sipped it gratefully. ‘Called out last minute. You know how it is. Replacement pilot.’ A spur of the moment reason, but it would explain the need to rush him to the base.
‘You timed it right then. They’ve just had an accident. One of the Otters from the military group based there. Pilot was lucky to escape from what I heard.’
Straker froze. ‘Military group?’
‘Yep. Keep themselves to themselves. Nice enough people, but don’t say much. Something to do with Defence I think.’
Alec. It had to be Alec. There were only three SHADO pilots out there right now, and neither of the others would dare disobey his orders. The idiot. He kept his voice calm and interested, trying not to appear too concerned. ‘Pilot hurt much?’
The co-pilot laughed. ‘Got away scot-free from all accounts. Luck of the devil I guess.’ He finished his own drink and crumpled the mug, tossing the remains into a nearby bin. ‘Don’t go back to sleep, you’ll need to watch out for the seatbelt light.’
And then Straker was alone again, worrying about the mission, about whether the aliens were still alive and there was a chance of capturing one, and most of all, worrying about Alec. He twisted his fingers together in a combination of anger and concern.
It was still daylight when he arrived at the base, the sun low down but nowhere near setting. It would not set again until the end of February. No darkness, just daylight. The two SHADO lieutenants waiting to meet him were polite and reserved and duly deferential despite his somewhat dishevelled appearance. Yes, Commander, everything was ready for the flight out tomorrow first thing, no, there had been no changes in the readings from Weather control and yes, Colonels Freeman and Morton were both asleep, oh and Colonel Freeman left his room at your disposal. Sir.
He asked for the daily log and skimmed through the details. Yes. As he suspected. Alec. The aircraft was a total loss and the clear-up operation another needless expense in a continent where every single iota of waste, both human and mechanical was collected, stored and sent back to the States for disposal. There would be hell to pay for this. But tomorrow, after some proper sleep instead of broken catnaps on inadequate bench seats.
He found Alec’s room, the bed neat and ready and a brief note on the desk reminding him they were leaving at five. There was no mention about the plane crash, and he wondered where Alec was sleeping tonight; probably in one of the smaller dormitories, or perhaps on the couch in Morton’s room. At least that way they would be able to get up early without disturbing those on the later shift, and Alec could delay the inevitable.
Straker finished in the tiny bathroom across the corridor; a quick wash, mindful of the need to conserve water though he craved a long shower to clean the staleness and dried sweat from his body. No chance of that tonight with the showers operating on alternate days. It was his intention to get the IAC to spend some real money on the living facilities here. Cramped bunk rooms for shift workers was not the way to keep staff working at peak efficiency, never mind that some people considered that the base was not of vital importance. SHADO needed a presence here and he didn’t give a damn if the other sections complained. His people deserved better than communal accommodation blocks and sharing bathrooms and other facilities with civilians. It made it even harder, knowing you had to watch every word you said.
He closed the door; no-one would disturb him tonight unless it was an emergency and even then they would go to the Station Commander first. At least the bed was warm and long enough to stretch out full length. He felt old beyond his years, tired and aching from the interminable journey, and the walk in Christchurch so many hours ago was a distant memory of fresh air and good coffee, hot food and muscles tingling from brisk exercise.
The pillow was cool under his face and he turned on his side to face the door, a habit instilled into him after the attempt on his life in Moonbase. It was impossible to sleep though. The bed seemed unusually still after so many hours of constant movement, and he tossed and turned, running through all the things that might go wrong tomorrow.